Thursday, October 22, 2015
US Navy Swift Boat (PCF)
Patrol Craft Fast (PCF), also known as Swift Boats, were all-aluminum, 50-foot (15 m) long, shallow-draft vessels operated by the United States Navy, initially to patrol the coastal areas and later for work in the interior waterways as part of the brown-water navy to interdict Vietcong movement of arms and munitions, transport Vietnamese forces and insert SEAL teams for counterinsurgency (COIN) operations during the Vietnam War.
Most of the 193 PCFs built were used by the Navy in Vietnam and the two training bases in California. About 80 of the boats constructed were sold or given away to nations friendly to the United States. The original training base for Swift Boats was at the Naval Base in Coronado, California. In 1969 training was moved to Mare Island near San Pablo Bay, California, where it remained for the duration of the war. Though not a deep water boat, PCF training boats frequently transited from Mare Island, through the Golden Gate Bridge to cruise either north or south along the Pacific Ocean coastline. PCF-8 sank in a storm off Bodega Bay, California in December 1969. This was the only Swift Boat lost during training operations. No crewmen were lost in the event.
The first swift boats arrived in Vietnam in October 1965. Initially used as coastal patrol craft as a part of Operation Market Time to interdict seaborne supplies on their way to the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army in South Vietnam. However, their shallow draft and low freeboard limited their seaworthiness in open waters. These limitations, plus the difficulties being encountered in the interior waterways by the smaller, more lightly armed PBRs led to the incorporation of Swift boats to patrol the 1,500 miles of rivers and canals of Vietnam's interior waterways. Swift boats continued to operate along the Vietnamese coastal areas, but with the start of Admiral Elmo Zumwalt's "SEALORDS" riverway interdiction strategy, their primary area of operations soon centered upon the Ca Mau peninsula and the Mekong Delta area in the southern tip of Vietnam. Here they patrolled the waterways and performed special operations, including gunfire support, troop insertion and evacuation, and raids into enemy territory.
The Mekong Delta was composed of ten thousand square miles of marshland, swamps and forested areas all interlaced by rivers and canal ways. Controlled by the Viet Cong, the interior waterways of the Mekong Delta were used to transport Viet Cong supplies and weapons.
Boats generally operated in teams of three to five. Each boat had an officer in charge, one of whom would also be placed in overall charge of the mission. Their missions included patrolling the waterways, searching water traffic for weapons and munitions, transporting Vietnamese marine units and inserting Navy SEAL teams.
When the swift boats began making forays up the waterways into the interior of the delta, they initially took the carriers by surprise, causing them to drop their materials and run off into the overgrowth. Occasionally a short firefight would break out. As it became clear that control for the waterways was being contested the Viet Cong developed a number of tactics to challenge the US Navy. They set up ambushes, built obstructions in the canals to create choke points, and began to place mines in the waterways.
For the swift boats, coming back down river was always more dangerous then going up river. The passage of a patrol assured their eventual return, providing an opportunity for the Viet Cong. Ambushes were typically short lived affairs, set up at a river bend or in a narrow canal that restricted the maneuverability of the boats. A wide variety of portable weapons were used in attacks, including recoilless rifles, B-40 rockets, .50 caliber machine guns and AK-47s, often fired from behind earthen bunkered positions. Engagements were brief and violent, with the ambushers often slipping away into the undergrowth when the boats located the source of attack and began to concentrate their return fire. When attacked the boats would accelerate out of the hot zone, turn and then return as a group, firing as many of their guns as they could bring to bear. They would power past the ambush point, turn and return to attack again till the ambushers were either killed or slipped away. Though most cruising and patrolling was done at 8 to 10 knots, the boats could reach a top speed of 32 knots. Thick brush and vegetation in the delta provided excellent cover for the escaping ambushers. Casualties taken among the river crews were high. Casualties suffered among the Viet Cong were difficult to assess, as they would take their dead and wounded away from a firefight. Discovering newly dug graveyards was one of the few ways to confirm Viet Cong losses.
The first Swift Boat to be lost during the war was PCF-4, which was lost to a mine in 1966. Two boats, PCF-14 and PCF-76, were lost in rough seas at the mouth of the Cua Viet River near the DMZ, and a third, PCF-77, was lost in a rescue effort during a monsoon at the mouth of the Perfume River on the approach to Huế. All three of these boats were lost in 1966. PCF-41 was lost that same year in an ambush when it was hit by fire from a 57 mm recoilless rifle. Its controls destroyed and coxswain killed, it ran aground at speed. When the crew ran out of ammunition it had to be abandoned. She was recovered the next day but was too badly damaged to be repaired. She was salvaged instead. PCF-43 was lost to a rocket attack in 1969. Several other Swift Boats had been lost to river mines, but had been salvaged and either repaired or used for spare parts.